Synthetic cannabinoids are being prepared and sold on the New Zealand black market, more than a year after they were banned from public sale by an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act. And a report provided to me by ESR shows they are not leftovers from the old regime, but largely new chemicals.
Since July last year, two months after synthetic cannabinoids were withdrawn from sale, ESR has analysed 15 samples – one from Customs, one from a "private client" and the others from police – as containing synthetic cannabinoids.
Two samples, one from a 158g seizure by Customs, were presented as powders. One was blotter card "tabs" that also contained 25C-NBOMe, 25H-NBOMe and 25I-NBOMe (in keeping with the rule that forcing one drug out of the market generally makes space for a more dangerous one, most blotters presented as LSD in New Zealand now actually contain the much more risky NBOMe drugs). The remainder were "plant material" prepared for smoking.
In addition, two further samples were tablets that could only provisionally be identified as containing synthetic cannabinoids – ESR had no data to aid a conclusive analysis. Those two tablets also contained MDPV (aka "bath salts") and one contained the other "bath salts" chemical, Alpha-PVP, which has been turning up in Wellington recently. They, or their constituents, are likely to have come from China.
The reports from ESR fly in the face of a recent assurance from Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne that police had told him there was only a "comparatively small" underground market, trading in products stockpiled from the old legal regime.
ESR's results say different.
"There are significantly more," ESR forensic analyst Hannah Partington told me. "And it's not consistent, they change."
"It's new ones," confirmed senior forensic scientist Jenny Sibley. "We had a very new one last week. It was in our data library, so we could identify that way. But we could not find any published data in scientific published papers. It takes ages for them to catch up."
Both agreed that the large Customs seizure of JWH 018, one of the original "legal highs", banned by the minister in November 2012, was an exception. Recent samples almost all contained cannabinomimetics never listed by the ministry.
In his interview with TV3's The Nation last month, Dunne cited the near-absence of an underground market in synthetic cannabinoids as a vindication of New Zealand's "different approach" to regulation, which he insisted was not a ban.
The predominance of "plant matter" presentations suggests that criminal enterprises have the skills to prepare smokeable material – which would typically mean dissolving a constituent chemical (or chemicals – about half the samples contained mixtures) in acetone and spraying it on leaf.
NORML has suggested that the New Zealand "weed drought" in the early part of the year could be a consequence of criminal operations moving from natural cannabis production to the faster, cheaper and less risky business of synthetics – much in the way that the supply of distilled spirits rocketed and beer consumption slumped during America's liquor prohibition years.
Hamilton mayor Julie Hardaker, who, like me, appeared on the same programme as Dunne, said to me she has been told by Waikato police that the process is widespread. In March, Christchurch police found synthetic cannabis prepared for sale alongside methamphetamine in a house they said was home to several gang members.
The flow of new cannabinomimetics presents problems for ESR, whose scientists have been struggling to identify the chemicals.
"We have to have a standard of each particular substance to confirm it for the report," said Sibley. "There's a company called Cayman in the US who make analytical reference standards of synthetic cannabinoids. And they try and keep up as much as they can with the way the market's evolving but you you're always playing catch-up, always. And it can be up to a year before a new substance will have a reference standard you can buy to confirm what you think it is. It makes it very difficult and it's very frustrating for the authorities."
I think there is no doubt that networks that have formerly dealt in natural cannabis are now selling synthetic cannabis in some quantity. This is not a leftover from the "legal highs" era: it is a new market, it involves little-known and poorly-understood chemicals – and it's probably growing.